On the last Friday evening in January, diners were beaming on the Tennyson Street section between 39th and 41st Avenues.
Couples walked arm in arm to their dinner reservations, families sat outside the ice cream parlor with to-go mugs, and outside a temporarily closed restaurant, The Way Back, groups of friends and singles lined up for cheeseburgers from Smash & Grab , a new Denver pop-up.
As a couple who had been waiting in line approached the walk-in window, owner Eli Cox announced that these two customers would get the last burgers of the evening. It was just after 6 p.m.
“I’d rather sell out than throw away meat,” cook and business partner Trevor Gilham later told the Denver Post. “If we could do 150 (orders) next time, that would be incredibly flattering and cool.”
Gilham and Cox are the newest creators of a Denver viral food trend during the pandemic. Their smash burgers follow in a number of hugely popular single dishes – from fried chicken to dumplings to donuts – that have caught customer attention on social media platforms like Instagram and stole our hearts over the past 11 months.
The recipe for success is simple but elusive: find the thing you do better than everyone else, find a way to get it to the masses and then hopefully sell out.
“It’s hype culture,” explained Cox. “Not everyone gets the pair of Jordans they want and I think that makes it more fun.”
Bored at home, attracted by pictures on social media and convinced of an easy delivery or collection, customers have no chance against the new food favorites of the internet.
When I got my hands on the eighth-to-last Smash & Grab burger from last January’s pop-up, I headed straight to my car and (maybe I shouldn’t be bragging about that part) ate my dinner from the safety of a parking lot on Tennyson Street. Enough food to pick up pandemics taught me that a burger won’t last the 20-minute drive home to my dining table.
But that night it stood up to the hype.
As Gilham describes his winning recipe: “That greasy smash burger, but with nice tomatoes and good stuff on top. You can just pick up (what) you don’t like. “
Grated lettuce, grilled onions, a secret specialty sauce, and relish inspired by Dick’s burgers in Seattle – Gilham has eaten the best of his favorite fast foods in the US (see also P. Terry’s in Austin and his drive-in cinema in his hometown in Montrose) and he paid homage and rose.
He’s also a trained chef who left the industry long ago to pursue a career in marketing with outdoor brands. Cox also worked in Denver restaurants for years, such as the original Twelve Downtown. Then he opened Berkeley Supply, a nine-year-old menswear store on Tennyson Street.
“I think we both vowed at some point that we would never work in a restaurant again like never again,” says Gilham as a caveat. “But the nice thing about this situation is that we can play in a restaurant once a month.”
So they take everything on themselves. At three pop-up events so far since December, the two limit their patties to around 100 and hope for the best. Due to the low supply, Gilham can remember how every single burger he turns turns out (he only regrets one that he thought was imperfect at the start of the last event).
But they spend their time working on those pop-ups, they price groceries to cover the cost of good ingredients ($ 8.50 for a burger, $ 49 for a Caviar & Lays bougie), they work with one local agents get together to sell good natural wines and some Korean beers for a reasonable price, and they give tips to unemployed people in the hospitality industry.
Gilham is allowed to cook in a lovely commercial kitchen, an opportunity he would not have dreamed of outside of the pandemic, and Cox can talk to customers and ring orders in the back. You’re having a blast.
“Every time we do it is a risk,” added Cox. “We write pretty decent checks to cover all (expenses). Fortunately, people continue to support it. “
When I spoke to Gilham and Cox in the middle of the week in early February, they were still almost a month away from their next burger sale (Friday February 26th). But I wondered if there was a way in the meantime to get photos of the action that would lead potential customers to cross a fast food dinner on their calendar for one night almost three weeks later.
“Do you just want to do a Saturday night?” asked Cox Gilham scheming.
“No,” Gilham said, and they both laughed.
There were families to spend precious pandemic time with, day jobs, and with viral foods you always risked giving too much to people.
“So we do it almost once a month,” said Gilham, “so our friends won’t get tired of it.”
The only way to find out about Smash & Grab’s upcoming events is by following their Instagram account at instagram.com/smashandgrabco/.
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